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Bears are definitely the main attraction at Clarks

Clark family dedicated to promoting and protecting its bears

Maureen Clark, left, and her brother Murray, pose with 22-year-old black bear Ursula, a show bear at Clark’s Trading Post now in retirement in a compound away from the other bears. Art McGrath. (click for larger version)
May 20, 2009
LINCOLN—This year marks the 60th year of Bear Shows at Clark's Trading Post and they continue to be the star attraction.

But that wasn't always so. When Ed and Florence Clark opened the Trading Post opened in 1928, Eskimo sled dogs were the main draw. Within a few years however, bears started to become a regular feature, according to Maureen Clark, granddaughter of the founders.

In 1931, three cubs were bought off a hunter and were named Toggle, Soggle and Woggle. By 1938, the now famous pens with their raised platforms so the bears can be seen from the road, were built. It was a necessity because the state required pens with wild animals be 100 feet or more from the road. Ultimately it was a benefit.

"It was better for the bears to keep them from the road," Clark said.

The platforms have been a draw for decades, with many generations of bears relaxing up there and drawing visitors even before the Bear Shows started in 1949.

The Clarks are serious about their bears in a way that bespeaks of their status as friends, almost part of their family.

"Bears are very much like people," Clark said. "They have very distinct personalities." The personalities extend to likes and dislikes in the performing ring. One of the bears particularly likes to ride the scooter that is part of the act and usually comes as the finale. Maureen said she discovered the scooter had to be hidden otherwise the bear would go straight for it and begin riding well before it was time.

When referring to one particular bear, Ursula, Clark definitely speaks as if she almost human. The 22-year-old Ursula, who is now retired and lives in a compound away from the show bears, is the last descendant of bears that started in the first shows.

"Her family and my family have worked together since 1949," Clark said.

No bears have been bred at Clark's since Ursula, as the number of bears is low and not many cubs are ever needed. There are five active show bears and three retired bears in a separate compound elsewhere on the property.

The average age for a bear in captivity is often well into its 20s. One retired male bear is 28, another 24 and of course Ursula, who is 22. One of the show bears is 19 but remains active in the ring, though primarily two bears—Echo and Pemi— participate now.

Last Thursday, Clark and her brother, Murray, posed for a few minutes with Ursula, arms around her and heads together. It was a touching expression of affection by both animal and humans which brother and sister bring into the ring during their Bear Shows that run several times a day, seven days a week during the height of the season.

Only Maureen and Murray go in the ring with the bears, which makes for a grueling season once it is fully underway, she said.

"It's a huge responsibility, we just can't pass it on to anybody," Clark said.

During World War II, Maureen's father Murray and his brother Ed went off to fight, Murray in the Navy, Ed in the Merchant Marine. When they returned they threw themselves into improving the park, which had become run down, and within a few years, this included adding the bear shows. They used their knowledge of handling dangerous animals they gained from the three cubs their father bought from that hunter and from handling the sled dogs, which were not friendly house pets, Clark said. Eventually the place began to take shape again.

"They put their blood, sweat and tears into this place," Clark said. "As they learned the shows got better."

The tricks were simple at first and gradually became more complex, including turning in circles, getting on barrels, drinking out of a bottle, and rolling over. Eventually the pyramid trick was added, with the bears stacking boxes to climb on and get things.

To celebrate the 60 years of shows there will be a "Bear-thday Celebration" the weekend of June 6-7. There will be drawings both days for bear hair mittens, knit from hair taken of various bears when being combed. One pair will be given away Saturday and another Sunday.

These items have only been available a few times and usually only with people connected with the bears in a special way or as part of a drawing to benefit the Lancaster Humane Society.

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